It was 1:30 am on Highway 99W north of Corvallis Oregon and I was seriously considering using my cell phone to get long distance information and give Ian Hall an early wake up call back in Winnipeg. It was Ian who got me involved with this event and I thought that he should suffer along with me.
It started with an innocuous e-mail from Ian saying something like "you're not going to have to cross any raging streams or face any severe frigid temperatures but you might be interested in this event anyway." He obviously knew me well.
The Raid Californie - Orégon was the brainchild of Joel Metz, a bike courier and long distance cyclist from San Francisco. The World Cycle Messenger Championships were coming up in Seattle on Sept 11-14 and Joel decided that an alley - kat type bike race from San Francisco to Portland Oregon would be a good warmup.
As I read the web site I learned that the distance was between 1250 and 1300 km. The rules were that you had to be totally self supported. There were no checkpoints, no support and in fact no specific route. The riders would start in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco at 9 am on Sept 1st and ride through town together to the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. At this point, it was everyone for themselves with the 1st person to Portland being the winner. If you had problems on the way you were on your own and had to make your way to Portland or back to San Francisco.
This sounded appealing to me. I've always enjoyed the solitude of riding alone and this promised to supply plenty of time to myself. I was also intrigued by the logistical challenge of planning a route, choosing the appropriate equipment and gear and planning for the necessary rest and nourishment. I sent my $20 US entry in right away. (That's not a typo, the entry was only $20.) I saw my name added to the list of registrants on the web site and immediately started to plan.
Trying to decide on the bike to ride was one of my first decisions. Since this event involved long hours in the saddle I decided that comfort was more important than speed. I also felt the the hours spent riding in darkness would mean that I was much more likely to run over things so I opted for my old faithful OCLV Trek mountain bike with 1.35 90 lb. pressure tires. I thought this would provide the best compromise in terms of comfort, durability, and reasonably low rolling resistance.
I thought of taking off the suspension forks but decided not to bother which would prove to be a very fortunate choice. I also added a set of aero bars and bar ends to provide a variety of riding positions.
As for gear, I had a handlebar bag as well as a rack trunk bag on a rear pannier rack and also a set of fenders. Not knowing what kind of weather to expect demanded a range of clothes including a rain shell, waterproof booties, regular and full finger gloves, arm and knee warmers, a Craft underwear top, a reflective vest as well as extra socks, shorts and 2 extra jerseys.
I studied the maps and saw 3 possible routes. The shortest was to follow the I 5 interstate or parallel roads but this would hit a serious range of mountains so I ruled that out. Another would involve leaving San Francisco and following Hwy 101 which makes it's way over to the coast after about 400 and follows the cost up through Oregon.
The route I chose was to cut over to the coast through Marin County just north of San Fran and follow Hwy 1 up the coast till it joins up with 101 about 380 km after the start. This would be hillier and windier than 101 but I wanted to see the coast and I was also told that it would be significantly cooler than the inland route.
I arrived several days early in San Francisco and spent my time sightseeing on my bike and stocking up on pasta and good Mexican food. San Francisco is a beautiful city but I found it very distressing to see a very large population of homeless people living out of shopping carts including more than a few mothers with young children. America may be the richest nation on earth but a lot of people are falling through the cracks.
On the morning of the race, I rode to the start with my extra luggage in a pack on my back. I arrived an hour early and met a number of other riders. I was one of only 3 or 4 non couriers and we were somewhat conspicuous with our lack of body piercing and tattoos. They were all very friendly and there was the usual nervous anticipation that we all experience before an event.
9 am came and the vehicle to transport our luggage was late along with 3 riders from Washington DC. We agreed to delay the start till 10 and a number of us java junkies went to a coffee house around the corner for one last fix.
Finally the station wagon arrived and we loaded our luggage for transportation to Portland and we were off on our adventure. The station wagon was going to arrive on Friday only as it was going to sort of follow the guys from Washington. Although support wasn't strictly allowed it was agreed that the driver could have conjugal visits with her significant other at night. I talked to her after the race and she said that there turned out to be no need for that dispensation.
We went through town as a group and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge where I stopped to take a picture although it was basically fogged in. At the end of the bridge, we were on our own and people headed off in 3 different directions. I found myself riding with about a dozen other riders who had obviously chosen a similar route to mine. I was somewhat concerned that none of them were Californians. Maybe they knew something we didn't?
Within the first hour I found myself on my own and settled in for the long haul. I stopped to fill my bottles after 60 km at Point Reyes Station where we joined up with Hwy 1 and turned north along the coast. I had already had my 1st problem as the battery pack from my bar mounted BLT light popped out over some bumps and as I went back to retrieve it I watched it being driven over by a truck. I fortunately had a headlight for my helmet as well but I had wanted that extra level of redundancy.
This proved to be a very minor problem compared to what was to come. About 10 km along Hwy 1 I crested a small hill and saw a half dozen motorcycles pulled over with one of the riders lying on the ground in obvious distress and 2 others administering CPR and mouth to mouth. It didn't look good and I was looking back over my shoulder as I rode past. I hit the ditch and as I tried to recover I fell on my left side.
As I hit a familiar ache came over my upper left chest. I had cracked my left collarbone. As I sat there and tried to pull myself together another racer named Ira came along . He is a bike courier from Portland and he was very helpful but there's really not much to be done with a broken collarbone.
Thank god for Tyler Hamilton and his fantastic ride in the Tour de France. I could feel movement in the collarbone and it hurt like hell but it felt like a crack and not a complete break. As there was no support forthcoming, I decided to carry on and see how it felt. I knew that I could always catch a bus if it proved to be too painful. It hurt and I wasn't able to get out of the saddle on any of the hills but I hadn't come all the way to California to be out of the race after 70 km so I plugged along.
Anyone who's ridden with me knows that I like to climb out of the saddle a good deal of the time so this was going to be hard. I had hoped to take somewhere between 3 and 3 1/2 days but this was now impossible. I revised my ambitions to merely finishing and felt that would be challenge enough.
My plan had been to ride through the first night and into the 2nd night before sleeping butI now decided to baby myself and stop overnight, I phoned ahead and arranged a motel at Ft Bragg California. I arrived there at 1:30 in the morning and I'd ridden 292 km.
Upon finding the key left under the mat and checking in, I faced one of the biggest challenges of the day in trying to get out of my sweaty jersey with my injury. I felt like Harry Houdini when I finally managed to contort my way out. I set the alarm for 6:30 after showering and carefully lowered myself onto the bed. The collarbone was quite swollen and the pain kept me awake most of the night so the alarm seemed to come far too soon.
I ate in the room, struggled back into the same clothes and set off at 7:30 in dense fog and cool weather. I had needed the arm and leg warmers the night before and did again as well as a second sleeveless jersey over the short sleeved one.
There was a 1000 ft climb after 1 1/2 hours and a climb of 2000 feet about an hour after that. This would be the first major test since the crash as to whether I was actually going to be able to complete the ride. I had to use smaller gears because I couldn't pull on the bars and really take my time but I managed to make it over the climbs non the worse for wear. About 2/3rds of the way up the longer climb Ira came by. He was camping and had stopped about 40 km before me the night before. He slowed and rode along with me and it was nice to have some company for a while. After a short period, I found myself pushing a little too hard and suggested that I was slowing him too much and we'd better part ways so off he went.
As we came down from this climb we had headed inland and joined up with highway 101. It was much hotter away from the coast and by 1 pm it was 97 F when I reached the town of Garberville. I stopped and had 2 bowls of soup and a turkey sandwich all of which I liberally salted. This wasn't exactly race food but I wasn't thinking of it as a race but rather a brisk tour at this point.
After Garberville, there are 2 parallel routes. Hwy 101 is a divided highway at this point and this is one option but I chose a road called the Avenue of the Giants. This heads through an incredible Redwood forest and is slightly longer but I definitely wanted to see this area and with the heat of the day it was welcome in that it was much more shaded than the open freeway. It lasted for 45 km and was truly incredible. I stopped and took a number of pictures with my bike up against these majestic beauties.
This was my toughest day as the pain of my injury, the lack of any sleep, a brisk headwind, and the heat which rose to 104 F had me really struggling. Another problem which I hadn't anticipated was a case of extreme saddle soreness. this was caused by my being unable to get out of the saddle and there was little to be done other than to fill my chamois with Vaseline and carry on. I quit earlier than the previous day (midnight) at McKinnleyville Ca after riding only 267 km. I was 559 km into the ride which wasn't even half way there yet and felt that everyone must be ahead of me.
I slept much better with the aid of 2 extra strength Tylenol and woke for the hotel's buffet breakfast at 5:30. I was on the road at 6:15 and hoping for a good day. There tends to be a headwind ( from the northwest ) on this route but it seems to be quite calm early in the morning so I made good time. At about 11:30 in the morning I was caught by the ever present Ira as well as Eric, a bike courier from Philadelphia. This lifted my spirits to know that I was still around other riders.
A short while later we stopped for some nourishment and I left the deli before them as there was an 1600 ft climb coming up and I wanted to get part way up before they came by. When they did I was surprised to see Cory, another Philly courier had joined up with them. Here we are about 700 km into the race and we have a pack of 4 riders. I quickly changed that by dropping behind on the long climb. I was extremely jealous as I watched them get out of the saddle to relieve their muscle and change position but that was just not possible for me.
As we went through Crescent City California I saw Eric's bike outside a deli and a little north of town I had Ira pass me again. He had stopped in Crescent City and packaged and mailed most of his gear back to Portland and was planning to ride the last 600 km to Portland straight through. With the lighter load he was flying and he slowed briefly to wish me well and flew on by. I was alone as I passed into Oregon.
I had heard about the beauty of the Oregon coast and from my view it's all true. The southern coast has beautiful bays with huge rock formations out in the water and surf crashing around them. I'd think one bay was the nicest I'd seen but sure enough the next was even better. I was about 750 km into the ride and hoping to push it over 900 but as evening wore on my left knee started to act up. I'm sure that being forced to just sit in the saddle was causing the problem. I decided to pack it in 45 km short of where I had planned to go. Often my stopping point was based on where I could get a motel. I ended up at 12:30 am at a town called Bandon and I was 865 km into the ride. I still felt awake but my knee said it was time to rest. I was worried that it would get worse and there was still slightly over 400 km to go.
Another refreshing 4 hour sleep and I headed out at 6:00 in the morning. I rode for several hours then stopped for a substantial breakfast. My knee felt a little better in the morning. I've always thought of pain as the way your body tries to tell you not to do something. When it figured out that I was going to carry on anyway it seemed to give up and stop bothering me. However, there was already a slight headwind which didn't auger well for later in the morning. I hoped to ride the 400 + km straight through to the finish. The shoreline had changed from rocks to sand dunes which were very impressive. The wind was going to make for a long day so I was glad to at least enjoy the scenery.
Just before noon, Eric came up from behind me and we rode together for a while. In what had to be bad timing in the extreme, we were pulled over by the police for riding 2 abreast on the narrow bike path. At this point I had ridden at least 950 out of 1000 km on my own and yet we were caught by one of the few police cars I'd seen. We explained that we were in a race and hadn't seen anyone for days and were just chatting briefly and he said to be more careful and sent us on our way.
At Florence, Oregon we turned east and headed inland towards Eugene. The next 30 km stretch was the only tail wind I had on the whole journey so I relaxed and enjoyed it. Knowing I was going straight through to the finish, I decided to have a good lunch . At this point, Eric went on without stopping. I was pretty sure I wouldn't see him till I arrived in Portland but I still had 230 Km to go so there was no point in treating it like a match sprint race.
Before Eugene, I turned north on a quiet side road which hooked up with Hwy 99W and on up to Corvallis and then up to Portland. Oregon State University is in Corvallis and the city seems to live and die with the fortunes of their football team. They were playing their 1st game the next evening in Fresno . Of interest to Winnipegers, Mike Riley who used to coach the Bombers is the head coach. I arrived at just before 10 pm to find that some sort of pep rally was just breaking up. This was interesting and made things busier than I had expected.
I suspected that there would be no place to stop between there and Portland so I decided to have some Mexican food to see me to the finish. While I was eating I called the phone number we'd been given for the finish in Portland. The finish was at a private house and I decided that they would probably prefer a call at 10 pm rather than 5 am to let them know I was on my way. Justin answered the call and told me that Ira had just arrived and was telling them about me riding with a broken collarbone. He said to come whenever and they would be there for me.
The night went well. I was tired but I found that I enjoyed riding at night as there was much less traffic and less wind. My only problem was that all of the anti inflammatories and pain killers I'd been taking had caused my stomach to rebel. I threw up several times during the night after which i felt better. I should point out to a certain local nutritionist from Winnipeg that I never suffered from diahreha during this event. She had pointed out that this had been a recurring theme in several of my other adventures.
The last 70 km into Portland was punctuated by more signs of civilization. I passed through numerous bedroom communities which tricked me into thinking I was closer than I was. I'd been dealing with pain and fatigue for days and I now found myself letting my guard down. This last stretch seemed to last forever and this was made worse by a stretch of steep hills in the last 30 km.
I was suddenly very cold and shivery. My being sick had probably lowered my blood sugar and even though I was only an hour from the finish, I had to get some food. I thought I was well back in the race so I decided to stop for breakfast. I phoned my wife Lynne while I was eating as it was 5:15 in Portland or 7:15 in the Peg. We talked briefly and she wanted to know why I was slurring my words. When the waitress brought my food I asked her to wake me if I fell asleep.
The food warmed me and I rode the final stretch into Portland as morning rush hour was just beginning. I saw several commuting cyclists and realized that most of them were able to go faster than me at this point. I had planned a route to cross the Willamette river but quickly realized that I had missed the bridge I had in mind. Nevertheless I found my way through town rather easily and arrived at the finish at 7 am, 92 hours after we'd left Golden Gate Park and after 1272 km .
When I arrived at the house, I expected to see Eric and numerous other riders who had already arrived. I was amazed to find that I was the 3rd person to finish. Eric came in about 1/2 hour later. Apparently he just couldn't keep going and had climbed into his sleeping bag for several hours in a field just north of Corvallis. It turns out that we were well ahead of the next riders as they didn't arrive until 5 pm. Riders continued to stream in throughout the evening with the last finishers expected to arrive around 3 am.
I had expected the following car would be there when I arrived but that wasn't the case. Since I had no clean clothes except the craft underwear top, Ira who lived at the finishing house lent me a pair of shorts. I hung around the house most of the morning and when no other riders had showed up I put on my cycling clothing and headed for my hotel. I stopped by a nearby Goodwill store and bought a pair of shorts and a t- shirt for the princely sum of $6.49 so I looked quite dashing when I checked into my hotel. I cleaned up and went out for an early dinner then headed back to the finish to watch other riders arrive and enjoy the company of the others.
Throughout the evening I was continually asked to lift my shirt as my chest had turned a mixture of purple and yellow . Riders came in throughout the evening with 2 of the guys from Washington coming in at 1 am with several riders from Ohio expected about an hour later. The finish for all involved was a true celebration of their accomplishing their goal as everyone truly was a winner.
As for myself, I find that every event I go in helps me to learn more about myself and this is particularly the case with the longer endurance events. I tend to be my harshest critic but I was very pleased with my effort in this event. It was nice to finish 3rd but I'm sure i would have been content with a lower placing as I felt that I'd truly done as well as my condition would allow. I've had races that I won where I couldn't honestly say that so I was very satisfied.
The event also gave me the opportunity to get to know a little bit about the subculture of the bike messangers. At first they seem like a tight knit and somewhat exclusionary group but they all proved to be very friendly and I feel happy that I had the opportunity to take part in this event with a number of them. I met a number of them who were career couriers including one 63 year old from Washington. I've considered working as a bike messanger when I've sold my store and meeting them did nothing to dissuade me from that plan. We'll just have to see what the future brings.